901 S. Ellwood Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21224 -- Archdiocese of Baltimore
President William H. Taft praised James Cardinal Gibbons for his "single-minded patriotism and love of country on the one hand and (his) sincere devotion to his Church and God, on the other." And another president, Theodore Roosevelt, said to him directly: "Taking your life as a whole I think you now occupy the position of being the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country.”
The subject of such heady praise began life humbly enough in Baltimore, MD on July 23, 1834. The upstairs bedroom of his parents' two-story home looked out on Gay Street, not far from the great dome and the booming bells of Assumption Cathedral which was to play such a large part in his life.
His Baltimore boyhood was cut short by the sudden serious illness of his merchant father. At the doctor's suggestion, Thomas Gibbons and his wife, Bridget (Walsh), gathered their three boys and three girls and sailed back to the Ireland they had left shortly after marriage. Among Mayo relatives the father struggled with health, the mother worked part-time and the children went to school. James did well in school and was, by all accounts, a natural athlete and a popular student. Many of his Irish schoolmates became lifelong friends.
The death of his father in 1847 and worsening conditions in Ireland caused Bridget Gibbons to pull up roots again and return to the U.S.A. After shipwreck off the Bahamas, the family arrived in New Orleans. James at 13 picked up his schooling and worked at odd jobs to help with the household expenses. Toward the end of his teens, he got a job in a grocery store where the owner, William Raymond, soon came to appreciate his quick mind and business sense. He talked to young Gibbons at times about a business career and the idea was very attractive.
God had other plans. In the spring of 1854, James at 19 attended a mission in St. Joseph's Church preached by the Redemptorists, Alexander Czvitkovicz, Isaac Hecker, Augustine Hewitt and Clarence Walworth. It is variously reported that a sermon preached by Father Hecker or by Father Walworth, caused their young listener to consider the priesthood. His employer was dismayed and tried to dissuade him, even offering an increase in salary. To no avail. In 1855, James went to St. Charles in Ellicott City, MD, to complete his college studies and then went to St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore.
PRIEST AND PASTOR
He was ordained June 30, 1861, and began his ministry in and around Baltimore when the city was caught in the political and emotional crossfire of the Civil War. He served brief terms at two parishes and was chaplain at Fort McHenry and at the end of his first year found himself a pastor of sorts at the mission parish of St. Brigid in Canton, MD. His pastoral zeal and effective preaching soon came to the notice of Archbishop Martin J. Spalding who named him his secretary in 1865 and delegated to him much of the preparatory work of the coming Plenary Council.
Impressed by the young priest's work at the Council in 1866, the body of bishops nominated him to be bishop of a newly created vicariate of North Carolina. Consecrated bishop in 1868 he was, at 36, the shepherd of 700 Catholics scattered over 50,000 square miles.
Much in the image of the classical itinerant preacher, he rode his horse past farms and through woodlands, talking to all, believers and non-believers alike, preaching the Gospel and charming away prejudice. From his experiences came the first of his apologetic books, Faith of Our Fathers. (It was later followed by Our Christian Heritage and The Ambassador of Christ.)
In 1869, Bishop Gibbons went to Rome as the youngest prelate at the First Vatican Council. Three years later he was named bishop of Richmond, VA and five years after that (April 15, 1877) he was appointed co-adjutor bishop of Baltimore. When Archbishop Bayley died the same year, Bishop Gibbons became his successor.
In his inaugural sermon the new Archbishop gave a brief review of his illustrious predecessors in the See of Baltimore. " . . . I might speak of Bishop Carroll, who possessed the virtues of the Christian priest with the patriotism of an American citizen; I might speak of a Neale, whose life was hidden with Christ in God; of a Mareschal, who united in his person the refined manners of a Frenchman with the sturdy virtues of a pioneer prelate; of a Whitefield, who expended a fortune in the promotion of piety and devotion; of the accomplished Eccleston, who presided with equal grace and dignity in the professor's chair, on this throne, and at the Council of Bishops; of a Kenrick whose praise is in the Churches, . . . I might speak of Bishop Spalding whose paternal face is to this day stamped upon your memories and affections. . .; of an Archbishop Baley, I can simply say that those who knew him best, loved him most. His soul never hesitated to make any sacrifice that God's honor and his conscience demanded." He held out the glory of his predecessors, not his own.
CHURCHMAN AND CITIZEN
At work in his office the day after the church ceremonies, the new archbishop began a 40 year episcopate which was to see him active and influential at the very heart of American life. He played an important role in improving Church-State relations, integrating great waves of immigrants into American society, defending the poor, preaching morality, coping with the turbulence of World War I, championing the rights of labor. The list goes on and on. Gifted by God with talent and a long life, he made the best of both. When he was made a cardinal in 1886, legions of his fellow citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic, were mightily pleased. His following grew steadily until his death on March 24, 1921.
Looking for a word to characterize the cardinal, people often settled for "priestliness." Speaking of this in a Requiem Mass, Bishop Thomas J. Shahan said in part: "It was as a minister of Jesus Christ, as an humble, unselfish and zealous priest, concerned chiefly about the divine and eternal interests of his people and his country, that he went about his beloved city and state, teaching in the name of the Divine Master, charity and tolerance, mutual respect and mutual service, and emphasizing at all times the ties which bind us in unity rather than the lines which denote our separate or particular interests . . . To the end he was faithful to his high priestly task of healing and consoling, of comforting and guiding a society whose defects and errors he well knew were rooted in spiritual ignorance rather than in malice."
Courtesy of Catholic Information Network (CIN)